Tag Archives: London’s shops

Churchill’s chair

It’s a little known fact that you can still find in smoke free London places where one can enjoy a cigar while drinking one’s coffee.

St. James’s Street has some of the capital’s oldest shops, Locks, Lobbs and Berry Bros. and Rudd.

One of the newer incumbents (arriving a mere 225 years ago) is London’s oldest cigar retailer, James J. Fox at number nineteen.

[H]ere leally you may smoke indoors with one stipulation, you have to buy a cigar from them and smoke it with a view to purchasing more should you so choose.

Robert Lewis began trading from the premises in 1787 selling tobacco in 1992 competitors James J. Fox; a business founded in Dublin in 1881 acquired the company renaming it to its present title.

ChurchillChair The shop has had many famous names passing through its doors. In 1900 Winston Churchill bought a box of 50 Bock Giraldas and became a regular customer. He would sit savouring his purchases in a special chair reserved for his use whilst sampling the proffered stock. Now in the small museum downstairs you may sit on the chair for a photo opportunity.

From 1891 Oscar Wilde would also pop into the shop to buy cigars as the meticulous ledger in the museum show, along with a high court letter showing that he had an outstanding balance of 7/3p for purchases made between 5th September 1892 and 24th June 1893.

Other exhibits include a box of cigars made for the Great Exhibition of 1851, sitting within the glass case used to display them to Queen Victoria, herself was not a regular but most of her family were customers.

Antique accessories, old photographs and memorabilia associated with its famous customers are displayed in this small and intimate museum.

Freddie Fox Museum at 19 St. James’s Street, is open Monday to Saturday 9.30-17.30, entry free.
Winston Churchill’s chair at the Cigar Museum London © J. J. Fox Limited

Harry Gordon Selfridge

Over the years Harry Gordon Selfridge has had many immitators: Swan & Edgar, Dickens & Jones, Bourne & Hollingsworth, Marshall & Snellgrove but none have matched him for innovation and flair and knowing how women wanted to shop.

If you, like me, are watching ITV’s Sunday drama Mr. Selfridge and don’t want to read any plot spoilers, look away now for Harry Selfridge had a pretty colourful life.

[H]arry Selfridge was an American self-made millionaire and he did that by understanding how women shopped, he invented the phase ‘the customer is always right’ and gave his iconic department store sex appeal when his competitors were still left in the Victorian era.

What the ITV drama, Mr. Selfridge hasn’t dwelt upon, althought it is loosly based on Lindy Woodhead’s biography: Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge is his early life.

Harry was born in Wisconsin 1856, but within months he moved to Jackson, Michigan were his father had acquired the town’s general store. At the outbreak of the Civil War his father joined the Union Army rising to the rank of Major. When discharged from the army his father deserted his family when Harry was just five. Within a short time his two older brothers died, leaving Harry and his mother to cope alone.

At 10-years-old he was delivering newspapers and by 12 he was working in a local store at the same time he created a monthly boy’s magazine.

After becoming redundant at 20 as a book keeper at a local furniture factory his ex-employer, Leonard Field, agreed to write Selfridge a letter of introduction to Marshall Field in Chicago where he started as stock boy. Over the next 25 years he rose to become a partner in the company and married into a prominent Chicago family.

He invented the phrase ‘Only – Shopping Days until Christmas’ and ‘The customer is always right’. Dubbed ‘Mile-a-minute Harry’ because of his tremendous energy and fountain of ideas, he was the first person to suggest lighting shop windows at night and the first to open an in-store restaurant. He then founded his own, rival store, which he sold for a huge profit.

At the age of 50, flushed with success he determined to travel to London which, with its fusty and unwelcoming stores, was ripe for a retail revolution. On one visit to London, he had gone into a store and a snooty assistant asked what he wished to purchase. When Selfridge replied that he was ‘just looking’ the assistant dropped his posh accent and told him to ‘’op it, mate.’

Selfridge decided to invest £400,000 in building his own five-storey department store in what was then the unfashionable western end of Oxford Street. The new store opened on 15th March 1909, setting new standards for the retailing business.

Assistants were encouraged to help customers rather than patronise them, and goods were displayed so they could be handled. There were elegant restaurants with modest prices, a library, reading and writing rooms, special reception rooms for French, German, American and “Colonial” customers, a First Aid Room, and a Silence Room, with soft lights, deep chairs, and double-glazing, all intended to keep customers in the store as long as possible. Before Selfridge, cosmetics and toiletries had been hidden discreetly away at the back of the shop, considered too racy and taboo to be on display. Moving scents to the front entrance of Selfridge’s so that people entering were assailed by a cloud of sweet scents was revolutionary, and it worked like magic.


Selfridge also managed to obtain from the GPO the privilege of having the number ‘1’ as its own phone number, so anybody had to just dial 1 to be connected to Selfridge’s operators. He proposed a subway from Bond Street Station to his store that was squashed as was his idea of building as massive clock tower on the roof just like Wickhams department store on Mile End Road. His architect told him with its weight it would fall through the roof.

Selfridge was an innovator: the store sold telephones, refrigerators and in 1925 held the first public demonstration of the television. His attention to detail was legendary: he was known as The Chief and would patrol the floors every day.


Unfortunately his womanising would be his downfall. After installing his family at Highcliffe Castle near Christchurch in Dorset (the council and English Heritage have recently restored this magnificent building) he could pursue beautiful women. After his wife died in the influenza pandemic in 1918 along with millions of others that year his spending on women took on a whole new dimension.

Blue PlaqueHe also began and maintained a busy social life with lavish entertainment at his home in Lansdowne House located at 9 Fitzmaurice Place, in Berkeley Square. Today there is a blue plaque noting that Gordon Selfridge lived there from 1921 to 1929. By 1939, exasperated with his profligacy, the Selfridge’s board ousted him from the business he had created 30 years earlier. He owed £150,000 to the store and £250,000 to the Inland Revenue — around £8 million and £13 million in today’s money.

The Selfridges board removed the apostrophe when he left and cut his pension by two-thirds. He ended up in a rented flat in Putney and would often take the bus to Oxford Street to gaze at his creation. By then, his clothes were so shabby that he was once arrested as a vagrant.

In 1947, he died in straitened circumstances, at Putney, in south-west London. Selfridge was buried in St. Mark’s Churchyard at Highcliffe, next to his wife and his mother.

Blue plaque photographed by Simon Harriyott

Highcliffe Castle photograph by Mike Searle

Saving for a rainy day

First invented in China over 4,000 years ago when some enterprising chap took the parasol that had been used to provide shelter from the sun and waterproofed its paper cone with wax and lacquer rendering it both ugly and waterproof. Before we had a drought the umbrella’s spiritual home was London. Originally designed as an accessory for women, it took a brave soul to promote its masculine use.

[E]nter writer and philanthropist Jonas Hanway who in the mid-18th century carried an umbrella for 30 years. His eccentric manner gave his name to the contraption – which previously had taken the Latin word ‘umbra’ meaning shade – and for a time it was referred to a ‘Hanway’.

His persistence came at a price for he incurred a good deal of ridicule, Hackney carriage drivers would try to splash Hanway and hustle him to the kerb because they feared the umbrella’s detri­mental effect on their foul-weather trade. The cabbies needn’t have worried you can never find a taxi in the rain to this day.

Due to our past inclement weather the umbrella has become a ubiquitous feature of London life and one shop has done more to promote its use than any other.

In 1830 James Smith opened London’s first dedicated umbrella shop in Soho’s Foubert’s Place. When the brolly business outgrew its cramped premises, Smith’s son, also called James, opened two new shops and the one in New Oxford Street remains to this day, a perfect example of a Victorian shop with its original brass and mahogany shop front and interior fittings.

With the continuous procession of buses parked in the road with their engine’s running inside it’s an oasis of calm. The service from the helpful staff are redolent of an earlier, less hurried age. Choose the wood you like, select the size of cover, be measured for the correct length and then wait for five minutes while the ferrule is fitted.

You might have to save for a rainy day for a bespoke brolly they cost £250 – £280 per umbrella. So for security the handle should on no account be adorned with a maker’s name so that upon it can be engraved your initials – especially useful to the waiters in those restaurants in which the differentiation of customers’ belongings carries a low priority, or when you inadvertently leave behind your precious brolly in my cab.

Now you are equipped – not simply with a well-made, properly functioning umbrella, but with a statement to the world in this the Jubilee Year that you are English and proud of it.